Once upon a time clergymen saw mountain peaks as natural steeples leading them ever closer to God. Doctors considered mountains the best medicine for tuberculosis, while explorers saw them as rocks never before touched by humans. I thought of those good people while T-barring up the Eggli in way below freezing conditions but in bright sunshine. For some strange reason, whenever I’m really cold I try to think of the German 6th Army trapped in Stalingrad, numbed in body and mind by the cold, while Hitler sat toasty warm back home and ordered them to fight to the death. After that, skiing in subzero weather is easy.
Nowadays most skiers wear helmets and ski masks, but at 78 years of age I refuse to look ridiculously like a boy racer — and to hell with safety. The mother of my children ditto. Where did the present craze for helmets originate? Obviously in helmet adverts that tell us how easy it is to get brain damage if one crashes on hard snow.
Mind you, brain damage in Gstaad is caused mostly by indoor snow, especially as most people here après-ski. Last week was as good as it gets — the slopes empty, the snow perfect, the sun shining. But it was very, very cold. Snow-capped mountains are a magnificent sight, and when one thinks that an arrowhead from the Bronze Age was discovered by some American tourists not so long ago, one sees Hannibal crossing the Alps as a recent event.
The greatest mountaineer alive is the Swiss Ueli Steck, a 38-year-old who has spidered up the Eiger’s North Face alone and without ropes in under three hours, the equivalent of running a marathon in 60 minutes. He is called the ‘Swiss Machine’ by those in the know, and he goes up mountains ‘alpine style’, without any fixed protection or supplemental oxygen. I have never met him, although I know someone who accomplishes similar feats of daring, a local Gstaad man by the name of Kobe, pronounced Kubby. He, too, has gone up the Eiger’s North Face, a treacherous, almost 90-degree slope of limestone and ice. It’s a funny thing, courage. Kobe and I used to train in karate together, and he’d flinch when I attacked yodan, that is, to the face. Yet he’d ascend like a mountain goat, armed only with crampons and ice axe, places I couldn’t even watch on film, such would be the vertigo. Courage, incidentally, is what one loses with age. Until three or four years ago, I could still go quite fast, but no longer. It starts with fearing a fall and the next thing you know you are going slowly down a steep slope, like an old lady crossing a busy street. Young shuss-boomers whizz by, provoking anger at their arrogance and at one’s cowardly reluctance to shuss behind them and pass them. Maybe in the next life.
Eight people died in an avalanche last week in France, and signs are posted all over not to go off piste. So what did my son do? He went with Lara Livanos on a helicopter and skied all day with her and a guide in deep powder and way off piste while her husband and I sat drinking in the sun at the Eagle club. Afterwards the four of us skied quite fast and non-stop on piste, without helmets. John Taki led the rowdy group in non-stop turns, finishing with a shuss. The Wassengrat used to be Papa Hemingway’s favourite mountain, except that he’d go up with skins, drink his wine and eat his prepared lunch, then ski down once and for all. It would take him two hours to go up, and about 30 minutes to descend. We now go up by chairlift in less than ten minutes, and boom down in about the same time. I’ll take Papa’s days anytime.
February is not the best time to be in Gstaad because everyone else is. Including Madame Bancroft Cooke, my recently married daughter, which is the good news. Lolly took her first steps not very far from here, on a February evening. Her mother started crying, as women tend to do, whereas I went to the Palace and celebrated for a change. Now there are fewer and fewer things to celebrate, which can put a damper on the high life.
Eugenie Radziwill’s birthday party was one such occasion, the other being the solace I find — both intellectually and emotionally — when I cross-country ski alone below the tree line late in the afternoon. Some of you may remember that a few years ago I wrote about running into a large bear just as dusk was descending near the Lauenensee, a few miles from Gstaad. If memory serves, it made me nervous but my curiosity got the better of me and I approached the animal. It turned out to be a very fat Saudi woman, covered in furs and jewels. She was extremely unfriendly — as bears tend to be — when I asked her if she was lost. I saw the fat lump again last week, but this time I skied on, sliding past her while she popped dates (I presume) into her mouth.
Yep, the snow’s good, the new arrivals flashy, but, as the great W.C. Fields almost said, I’d rather be here than in Beirut anytime.